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Lights, music in casinos interact with brain like drug addiction

By Stephen Feller   |   Jan. 20, 2016 at 3:44 PM

VANCOUVER, British Columbia, Jan. 20 (UPI) -- Flashing lights and music encourage rats to make risky decisions in a "rat casino" in ways similar to their effect on humans, which scientists said may offer some explanation for gambling addiction.

Scientists at the University of British Columbia found rats were more likely to engage in risky, gambling-like behavior with bright lights and loud sounds -- and were less likely when a specific dopamine receptor was blocked in their brain.

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The dopamine D3 receptor is already suspected to be important to drug addiction, meaning the new study supports theories that addictions have a common biological cause.

"Anyone who's ever designed a casino game or played a gambling game will tell you that of course sound and light cues keep you more engaged, but now we can show it scientifically," said Dr. Catharine Winstanley, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, in a press release. "I often feel that scientific models are decades behind the casinos. I don't think it's an accident that casinos are filled with lights and noise."

In the study, published in the journal Neuroscience, researchers trained rats to play gambling-like games. The rats then had to choose between four reward and punishment gambling options and they were tested for their response with and without lights and loud sounds.

While the scientists report rats generally learn to avoid risky behaviors that result in punishment, the light and sound caused them to continue taking larger risks. When the scientists administered a drug that blocked the dopamine D3 receptor, the rats' risky decision-making decreased.

"This brain receptor is also really important to drug addiction, so our findings help support the idea that risky behavior across different vices might have a common biological cause," said Michael Barrus, a doctoral candidate at the University of British Columbia.

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